This series is called ‘Collected’ — an appropriate title for a set of articles written by an eclectic range of novelists, poets, playwrights and journalists. The name is convenient, as the act of collecting happens to be my theme for this piece. Why do people have the urge to collect an assortment of related things, and enjoy the experience of adding to it? This compulsive behaviour can begin at a young age — everyone knows a small child with a mania for collecting cuddly toys, for example. But the desire to collect can continue throughout life, affecting some more than others. Perhaps this is not just a phenomenon of our materialistic era, when collecting desirable objects can set you back a fortune. The urge to collect seems to be an aspect of human nature — perhaps a fundamental need to gain some control over the randomness of life.
It must be said not all collecting habits are expensive. My six-year-old grandson is an avid collector of bottle tops, of the beer variety. A canny choice, as his parents are keen on trying out craft beers, so he has a steady incoming supply. Perhaps more significantly, the collection does not dent my grandson’s limited financial resources; it is a little-known fact that our newly cashless economy has led to a lack of available small change for weekly pocket money.
You would be surprised how many different bottle tops are out there, and how pretty some of them can be. My grandson’s fascination with them has encouraged me to value something apparently worthless, usually discarded without a second thought. We live in a throwaway culture, and sometimes, the things we get rid of deserve much closer attention. I must confess that when out with my grandson, I have been seen scrabbling about in gutters outside pubs and digging with sticks in muddy parks — all in search of the next, elusive bottle top. I get ridiculously excited when we discover a new design in the dirt.
In my valiant attempts to boost my grandson’s collection, I have managed to enlist the support of a local business. The manager of my town’s craft beer shop is now on board, and even has a Starbucks-style cup with my grandson’s name written on it, which she fills with all the bottle tops that come her way. Last time I popped in, she told me with some enthusiasm that she had salvaged some unusual examples on a weekend away with her mates — now that really went beyond the call of duty.
I guess my grandson’s bottle top collection intrigues me, because as a writer, I am interested in the idea of finding joy and beauty in the everyday and ordinary. This is something that comes easily to children, but when we grow up we seem to lose the knack. Perhaps artists are an exception to this rule — and in that group I include writers, and especially poets. As a student, I remember reading the extraordinary work of Francis Ponge, a twentieth-century French poet; his prose poem ‘Le Pain’ discovers a whole world in a simple loaf of bread: ‘Under my fingers and eyes, the crust unravels a truly panoramic view: I trace the Alps, the Andes, touch Mount Taurus.’ (Francis Ponge, translated by Vadim Bystritski.) ‘Le Pain’ appears in Le Parti Pris Des Choses (The Nature of Things) a remarkable collection of prose poetry published in 1942 during the Second World War. Written at a time of global unrest, Ponge’s work celebrates the beauty and wonder of everyday things that we often take for granted.
All good writers and artists pay attention to detail, noticing things that are usually ignored or simply not observed at all. Children’s writers like myself need to get inside the heads of their young readers, and this often involves trying to view the everyday with fresh appreciation and enthusiasm. The mundane must be transformed into the magical, to capture the reader’s attention; some of the best children’s writers have perfected this skill. In James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl gives us a huge (but very recognisable) peach stone, inhabited by an unforgettable group of enormous (but very familiar) insects. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis elevates a humble wardrobe to become a mysterious portal (and who hasn’t tried to make that glorious magic happen for themselves — I know I once did). And in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, a neglected, ivy-covered door becomes a gateway to the most beautiful and life-changing haven. I could go on, but you get the idea.
More widely, recognition of and respect for the ordinary is at the heart of many works of art. Film directors may exploit this idea visually, lending universal significance to an unremarkable object. For example, in Le Ballon Rouge (dir. Albert Lamorisse, 1956), the boy’s red balloon is transformed into a symbol of happiness and hope in a postwar Paris landscape. In American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes, 1999), a discarded plastic bag blowing in the wind soothes a young, troubled filmmaker; the swirling dance of the bag symbolises beauty and becomes a mesmerising work of performance art.
But I digress — back to bottle tops, which have now become a valuable commodity in our household. The true worth of an item depends on your perception of it and none of my family can look at bottle tops in the old dismissive way. If one goes missing from my grandson’s collection, we all drop what we are doing to look for it. This veneration of something usually considered worthless takes me back to my own childhood. As a child, I was something of a collector myself — of sugar papers.
In a world before global café chains and coffee take-out culture, sugar was served in solid cubes that would melt on your tongue if you were patient enough to let them. In cafés, restaurants and hotels, sugar cubes were wrapped in an array of differently patterned papers, often featuring colourful advertisements and with illustrations on them specially designed for a particular venue. At about my grandson’s age, I took it upon myself to start collecting these papers. As with bottle tops, they were ideal for the cash-strapped junior collector — I never felt it was stealing to snaffle them away in my pockets. After a while, members of the family would return from their holidays with exotic continental varieties. It became a bit of a family obsession — now, does that sound familiar? History does have a habit of repeating itself.
I have only recently discovered that the act of collecting sugar papers has a name of its own: sucrology. As for everything in the age of the internet, there is an online community for those who indulge in this particular hobby. At the age of six, little did I know there were other sucrologists out there in the big wide world — I thought, mistakenly it transpires, that I was unique. But my obsession with collecting these small and generally overlooked objects of beauty did encourage me to observe and enjoy detail in the world around me. At around this time in my life I began writing a diary, which opened up a whole world of creative expression to me. Like a magpie, I swooped down on shiny moments that brightened my days, collecting and recording them for future reference. Perhaps I can trace my career as a children’s writer back to those early diary entries.
I think about my sugar paper collection from time to time, wishing rather wistfully it was still in my possession. I kept my sugar papers in an old photo album, which went missing at some point during my careless teenage years. Will the same sad fate befall my grandson’s hoard of bottle tops, I wonder? Will those beautiful, most ordinary of objects, having been plucked from oblivion, eventually return to it? Probably so, and perhaps that is a metaphor for our brief spell on this earth. But rest assured that for now at least, my grandson’s treasured bottle top collection is intact, and growing exponentially.